According to a shocking news report, the government of Israel has asked the country’s editors to censor information about an ABC exclusive into the mysterious case of an Australian – dubbed ‘Prisoner X’ – who was found hanged inside one of the country’s most secretive jails.
Investigations by the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program have revealed Ben Zygier, who used the name Ben Alon in Israel, was found dead in a high-security cell at a prison near Tel Aviv in late 2010.
His body was flown to Melbourne for burial a week later.
The evidence suggests that Zygier was ‘Prisoner X’, who Israeli and international media have speculated was an inmate whose presence was not acknowledged by the jail system or the government.
Zygier’s arrest and jailing in Israel remains a mystery, but the ABC understands he had been recruited by spy agency Mossad.
It is understood he “disappeared” in early 2010, spending several months in the Prisoner X cell at Ayalon Prison in the city of Ramla before being found dead.
A former operative with Australia’s overseas spy agency ASIS has told the ABC that Zygier’s transgression would have to have been involved with “espionage, treachery – very, very sensitive information that, known to others, would pose an immediate threat to Israel as a nation state.”
The Prisoner X case is regarded as one of the most sensitive secrets of Israel’s intelligence community, with the government going to extraordinary lengths to stifle media coverage and gag attempts by human rights organisations to expose the situation.
When an Israeli news website reported that the prisoner died in his cell in December 2010, Israeli authorities removed its web pages.
Within hours of the Foreign Correspondent report going to air, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office summoned Israeli editors to ask them not to publish a story “that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency”, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper said.
“The emergency meeting was called following a broadcast outside Israel regarding the incident in question.”
Shortly afterwards, references to the ABC report vanished from Israeli news sites, including that of Haaretz itself.
Such a gag order is highly unusual in Israel, where state military censors normally allow local media to quote foreign sources on controversial incidents – such as an alleged attack on Syria last month by the Israeli air force.
Members of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem asked justice minister Yaakov Neeman to confirm if the report was true, and demanded to know if other prisoners were being held in secret.
“This matter is not within the jurisdiction of the justice ministry,” Mr Neeman responded.
“There is no doubt that if this information is accurate, this is something that ought to be checked.”
The state censors allowed news outlets in Israel to report the parliamentary debate, but nothing else.
Foreign Correspondent said Zygier was 34 at the time of his death and had moved to Israel about 10 years earlier. He was married to an Israeli woman and had two small children.
At the time of his disappearance, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel criticised the imprisonment and wrote to Israel’s attorney-general.
“It’s alarming that there’s a prisoner being held incommunicado and we know nothing about him,” wrote the association’s chief legal counsel Dan Yakir.
The assistant to the attorney-general wrote back: “The current gag order is vital for preventing a serious breach of the state’s security, so we cannot elaborate about this affair.”
Contacted by the ABC, Mr Yakir would not comment on the case, quoting a court order gagging discussion.
Bill van Esveld, a Jerusalem-based advocate for Human Rights Watch, has described the secret imprisonment of Prisoner X as “inexcusable”.
“It’s called a disappearance, and a disappearance is not only a violation of that person’s due process rights – that’s a crime,” he told Foreign Correspondent.
“Under international law, the people responsible for that kind of treatment actually need to be criminally prosecuted themselves.”
Zygier’s apparent suicide in prison adds to the mystery. He was found hanged in a cell which was equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance systems installed to prevent suicide. Guards reportedly tried unsuccessfully to revive him.
His body was retrieved and flown to Melbourne. He was buried in Chevra Kadisha Jewish cemetery in the suburb of Springvale on December 22, seven days after his death.
Zygier’s family has declined to speak to the ABC, and friends and acquaintances approached by Foreign Correspondent in Melbourne have also refused to comment.
Australia’s domestic intelligence agency ASIO has long scrutinised Australian Jews suspected of working for Mossad.
The agency believes Mossad recruits change their names from European and Jewish names to “Anglo” names.
They then take out new passports and travel to the Arab world and Iran, to destinations Israeli passport holders cannot venture.
Warren Reed, a former intelligence operative for Australia’s overseas spy agency ASIS, told Foreign Correspondent that Australians were ideal recruits for Mossad.
“Australians abroad are generally seen to be fairly innocent,” he said.
“It’s a clean country – it has a good image like New Zealand.
“There aren’t many countries like that, so our nationality and anything connected with it can be very useful in intelligence work.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs has confirmed that Zygier also carried an Australian passport bearing the name Ben Allen.
When told details of Foreign Correspondent’s investigation, Foreign Minister Bob Carr said he was concerned by the claims.
“Those allegations certainly do trouble me,” Senator Carr said.
“It’s never been raised with me. I’m not reluctant to seek an explanation from the Israeli government about what happened to Mr Allen and about what their view of it is.
“The difficulty is I’m advised we’ve had no contact with his family [and] there’s been no request for consular assistance during the period it’s alleged he was in prison.”
Senator Carr said that in the absence of a complaint by Zygier’s family, there is little for the Australian Government to act upon.
International conventions spell out that when a foreigner is jailed or dies, their diplomatic mission must be informed.
Senator Carr says Australian diplomats in Israel only knew of Mr Zygier’s incarceration after his death.
Mr van Esveld says it is inexcusable for the Australian Government not to be notified.
“The obligation of one country to notify another when the other citizen has been arrested, detained, especially if they die – that is so basic. It is called customary law,” he said.
“Which means that even if Israel didn’t ratify a treaty saying it has to notify the other country, it still has to do so because that is such a basic norm of interstate relations.”
The greater mystery is why Zygier was imprisoned under such secrecy.
Sources with connections to Israel’s intelligence community have told Foreign Correspondent his predicament would have been “extreme” to warrant such harsh treatment.
Former ASIS operative Mr Reed told the ABC: “However the transgression came about, it would have to be involved with espionage, treachery – very, very sensitive information that, known to others, would pose an immediate threat to Israel as a nation state.”
The Israeli embassy in Canberra has declined to comment.